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‘This isn’t a toy!’ Anger greets photos of dead shark hung by its tail in Scituate

Some said the social media posts by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, showing the dead white shark, were in poor taste.John Chisholm

When many people think about sharks, their emotional responses may be closer to terror than sympathy. But some animal lovers said they were offended or horrified when they saw photos of a dead white shark posted on social media Saturday.

The 10-foot female died after it was unintentionally caught in a gillnet, according to the Facebook and Twitter posts by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.

It was brought to Scituate, where samples were taken by scientists who study sharks, according to the posts. They included photos of the massive fish suspended by its tail and surrounded by onlookers, prompting criticism as well as messages of support.

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Greg Skomal, a biologist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries, said he avoids social media and had not seen the response to the photos, but he understands the impulse behind the outrage.

“I appreciate people’s passion for this,” said Skomal, who was present in Scituate and took tissue samples from the animal, along with a fisheries scientist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Certainly we’ve come a long way in the last 50 years, where for the most part, [in the past] the only good shark was a dead shark,” Skomal continued.

The social media response showed how much that attitude has changed. One photo in particular, showing a small girl patting the shark’s head, prompted outrage from a Facebook user.

“This isn’t a toy!” she wrote. “It’s a beautiful animal that has been killed. What is wrong with people.”

One man, who described himself as a “huge supporter” of the conservancy, said he found the organization’s Facebook post “very offensive.”

“What happened to this animal is in my opinion criminal,” he wrote. “Then to hang it like a trophy is disgusting. There are other ways for our children to learn about sharks. Wish you discouraged this and not promote it on your site.”

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The conservancy responded, saying it appreciated his support and further explaining the images.

“This white shark was caught and killed unintentionally, which is not illegal,” the organization wrote. “The photos from our post are just after the shark was picked up from the boat to be moved to the ground for scientists to collect samples. Much will be learned from this animal.”

The conservancy and the offended Facebook users did not immediately respond to interview requests on Sunday afternoon.

Skomal stressed that “there was no intent by this fisherman to kill this shark” and explained that the law forbids fishermen from possessing sharks, dead or alive. So when an animal is snared in a net, it is usually thrown back into the water.

On Saturday, the commercial fisherman who caught the shark was able to contact Skomal, who had the authority to allow the shark to be brought to Scituate and to take possession of it, he said.

“It’s great for us to take advantage of that opportunity and learn at least something from the animal,” he said. “Ideally, we want to keep them alive . . . but if they do die as by-catch, which is rare, we at least want to learn something from them.”

Skomal said it was necessary to hang the shark from its tail to weigh it. He added that he and the other biologist had examined the shark’s reproductive system to determine its sex and whether it was mature and looked at its stomach contents to see what it had eaten.

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They took samples of the shark’s backbone to determine its age, took liver and muscle tissue to measure contaminants in its system, removed its heart for study by a specialist in shark circulatory systems, and took its nasal lobes so a biologist could study its sense of smell.

“It is sad that the animal’s dead, but from a scientific standpoint this was an opportunity,” he said.

Skomal said it was “refreshing” that so many people had posted online about their desire to keep sharks alive and treat them with care.

“If people are passionate about protecting an animal that was much maligned historically,” he said, “then I think that we’re going in the right direction.”


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.